Some very academic advice

For many graduate students, the question of what to do next is a hard one. Do I want to do research? Teach? Get involved with business? Something completely different? What kind of lifestyle do I value and what are my priorities? Let’s say you have some idea of the answers to these questions, and have decided you want to pursue academic jobs. Then what?

Even though I’m fairly certain academia is not in my future, I found a panel discussion at a department retreat this week centered on these questions to be very informative. The panel was geared towards Ph.D. students thinking about either post-doc or faculty positions. Something to note is that while a post-doc, if not mandatory, is at least heavily encouraged in the life sciences if you are pursuing a career in academia, but is not necessarily required for fields like bioinformatics or computer science – that is, you can be hired as an assistant professor straight out of your Ph.D. This discussion covered both post-doc and faculty applications.

Each panel member was assigned one of the following topics to cover in 5-10 minutes of podium time:

  • Preparing your CV and choosing where to apply
  • Crafting a compelling teaching statement
  • Crafting a compelling research statement
  • The job talk

Each panelist fielded some questions from the audience during their talk but there was also an open discussion afterward. Below, I’ll try to summarize the main points each panelist made and then provide my own thoughts.

1. Preparing your CV and choosing where to apply.

This portion was heavily tailored towards biomedical informatics and towards our institution, which has a certain template for the CV, but I would guess that the main content is applicable at least to other biomedical informatics type people.

Structure of the CV:

  1. Name and contact information
  2. Education, most recent first. Your graduate training should include the title of your dissertation and the name(s) of your advisor(s).
  3. Relevant work experience, e.g. any appointments if applicable, teaching positions, industry positions, etc.
  4. Publications in peer-reviewed archival journals. Conference papers go here if they were peer-reviewed.
  5. Invited talks. If someone paid for you to come give the talk, it probably counts. These are great because it shows other people are interested in you or your work.
  6. Other publications, such as conference papers, book chapters, and popular articles.
  7. Service and leadership. This includes participation on review boards, program committees, organizing committees,
  8. Awards and honors – fellowships, grants, and anything that was competitive in nature. Best Poster award? Check. Travel funding award? Check. Genius grant? Check.
  9. Other activities. Whatever you spend a significant amount of time on outside of your research and academics. If you’ve earned any distinctions in those activities, be sure to list them.
  10. Membership in professional societies or organizations, e.g. ISCB, AAAS, ACS, [insert acronym here].

Most people who review your CV will look first at sections 1, 2, and 4. Your publications – the titles, the number, and where they’re published – are likely to be what determine whether they look at the rest of the CV (for better or for worse). Then the rest of your CV is what will distinguish you from the rest of the pile.

Photo by SOCIALisBETTER on Flickr

Photo by SOCIALisBETTER on Flickr

Regarding where to apply, there were a few major points:

  • If you are applying for a post-doc, apply to places where you can learn something new, ideally at a different institution. Learning something new shows that you’re not a one trick pony. Going somewhere else shows that your success is due to YOU and not your graduate advisor.
  • Think about what you want to do and what your priorities are. Whether you prefer research or teaching or both will determine what kind of schools you should look for. Then, of course, there are considerations such as location, whether you have a significant other that factors into the equation, etc.
  • It’s similar to college or graduate admissions – you have your “reach” schools, your “target” schools, and your “safety schools”. Your target and reach schools should be institutions at the same level as your current one.
  • Don’t compare theoretical job offers, only actual ones. It’s pointless to spend time debating over job offers you don’t even have yet, so just apply to whatever you think you might be interested in. When you have offers, then you should spend time thinking about them.

And, one of the most important things to do is to leverage your network, in particular when applying for post-docs. Cold-calling a professor almost never works, so ask your advisors and your committee members to make some phone calls on your behalf – this is part of their job!

2. Crafting a compelling teaching statement.

If teaching is what you want to do, this statement is critical. First, you need to demonstrate your commitment to teaching. This means getting started as soon as possible actually teaching, whether it be tutoring, organizing workshops or talks, TA-ing and giving lectures, even writing review articles – whatever shows that you have engaged in activities requiring you to synthesize a lot of material and explain complicated concepts succinctly and effectively. Whenever possible, seek evaluative feedback from your audience so that you can figure out what you’re doing well and what you need to do better.

Photo by foundphotoslj on Flickr

Photo by foundphotoslj on Flickr

As part of this, you need to make it obvious why you want to teach. What motivates you? Why is teaching important to you? Maybe it’s the satisfaction you get seeing someone improve their understanding due to your efforts. Whatever it is, use actual experiences to make your motivations concrete.

The second part is showing that you are a successful teacher. This could be through examples of how you helped people learn, through being invited to give lectures or talks, through awards or honors, etc. Videos were not mentioned but I can imagine these being useful material for the committee reviewing your application. SciVee or even JoVE, if you can publish there, could come in handy for this.

Even if you are applying to a research-heavy institution, you usually still need to include a teaching statement, it might just be shorter.

3. Crafting a compelling research statement.

What problems are you trying to solve and why? Again, they want to hear your motivations. What have you done so far to solve these problems and what are your research plans for the future? You need to convince them not only that you have a track record of investigating difficult and important questions, but that you have ideas you will explore successfully if they hire you. In essence, they want to hear what your first few grants will be.

Then, make sure you are describing everything for a broad scientific audience – don’t assume that everyone on your committee has an intimate knowledge of your problem area. You should also be able to step back and provide an overall vision for your work, placing it in context and recognizing its impact. With all things written, keep it as short as possible while still getting your points across! (This goes for the teaching statement, too.)

4. The job talk

So let’s say they liked your CV, your teaching and research statements, and your recommendation letters. At this point, they will invite you to visit them for a day or two, wherein you will give a talk and meet with multiple faculty and probably some students.

The #1 rule: Know your audience. The more you know about who you’re presenting for, the better you can plan for the scope and content of your talk and the better prepared you will be for questions that come up.

#2: You must know your work and your talk so well that you can adapt your talk on the fly and interact with the audience effectively. A necessary skill is the ability to field questions with confidence, grace, and the appropriate amount of humility. Most people don’t do this well and it is primarily a social skill. Repeating the question is often a good idea, both to clarify, give you time to think, and, in some cases, clue the rest of the audience in to the situation if the question happens to be ridiculous. When someone takes issue with your work, you want to empower the questioner while still giving yourself and your work sufficient credit. Agree with whatever aspect of the question is accurate, but then give your perspective on why the rest of the statement may not be accurate. (If the questioner is insistent, it is often effective to express your interest in their statement and ask if you could discuss it with them afterward. Then, follow up! They might actually have a good point.)

Photo by psd on Flickr

Photo by psd on Flickr

#3: Be prepared to give a “chalk talk” – that is, a talk without slides or notes. This may happen as part of a second interview with a smaller audience, where the main goal is to be able to have a frank discussion with you about your research and your intended plans. Here, as with your research statement, it’s important to have a good idea of what your first two grants will be, to the detail of the specific aims.

Other thoughts: Start looking 6-12 months before you want to start the new job. Try to schedule interviews at “safety” schools before the ones you really care about. You’re going to make mistakes, and you want to make them early and learn from them. Go to job talks at your own school, to see how they’re done and to learn. Practice answering questions with friends and colleagues about your work. Have a 1 minute elevator pitch about your work and also a phrase or slogan that others can remember (e.g. if your work is on imaging informatics, it could be “so many images, so little time”). Also, letters of recommendation are extremely important. Things like giving back to your department or your field, being a good colleague, volunteering your time for scientific pursuits, showing initiative – these types of things will motivate your references to write you glowing letters of recommendation.


Many of these tips are useful for non-academic job applications as well, such as having an elevator pitch, being able to answer questions well, and engaging in activities that highlight your leadership and initiative. Something that is good to keep in mind is that once you’ve cleared one hurdle, it doesn’t matter by how much. So if you got a first round interview, don’t worry about how your CV might have stacked up to the others – focus on doing well on your job talk and interviews because that is all that matters now. If you make it to the second round, don’t worry about what might have happened in the first round. And once you get a job offer, you’re in control – they are committed to their choice and will do what they can to get you to accept. So learn from your mistakes, but keep looking forward!


2 Responses to Some very academic advice

  1. Great post! I have only about half a year of PhD fellowship, I should think about whats next.

  2. Daniel Jurczak says:

    Even though I am right now in the middle of finishing my M.Sc. I always enjoy those kind of posts. Great summary Shirley.

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